Friday, September 29, 2017

Wild Ophelia: Cold Brew Chocolate Coffee Bites - Mexican Vanilla

Well, well, apparently today is National Coffee Day. Not that I planned it out that way (who can keep up with all of the food days, anyway?), but I happen to have a coffee chocolate today. And a coffee chocolate with one serious name. It's the Cold Brew Chocolate Coffee Bites in Mexican Vanilla from Wild Ophelia.

Wild Ophelia, in case you weren't aware, is another brand by Vosges (and the Wild Ophelia chocolate is fair trade). I reviewed quite a few of their bars back on Chocablog when World Market was carrying them about, oh, four or five years ago. This little packet I found by the register at World Market recently; you know, the place where they keep candies and gum and a couple pretty soaps and tiny notebooks and all the things you don't really need but might impulse buy just because they're right in front of you.

Inside the packet is a white tray like what Reese's Cups come in; on top of the tray are four chocolate squares. They're called, you'll remember, "bites," not truffles. They come with a feathery design on top, and because they're from World Market (or because we're in Arizona) the surface does have some bloom on it. When I cut open one of the squares, I found the chocolate shell much thicker than I'd expected, especially on the top layer; I didn't count this as a good sign. The caramel is the color of molasses and it's fairly gooey and free-flowing. The aroma? Vanilla for sure, a wonderful vanilla and dark chocolate scent.

I couldn't smell the coffee at all, but it did come through instantly in flavor. It's nice and rich and sweet coffee. As you chew through one of the bites, you're mainly just tasting the coffee; once the caramel inside is gone and you just have the melting chocolate left, it's the chocolate that you taste, along with some vanilla. I'll take this moment to note that I can't tell anything particularly Mexican vanilla about this vanilla; it just tastes like vanilla to me. I think that label was more of an interesting title than a particularly apt description.

Now, when I went through and tasted this Wild Ophelia bars before, I found that the line was better at flavoring chocolate than making the chocolate itself amazing. That's the case here. The chocolate is a sweet dark chocolate; it kind of tastes of marshmallows in this context. I probably wouldn't overly care for it on its own, but it works well here. These little chocolate bites are all about the coffee, not the chocolate. The chocolate, vanilla, caramel (which I really don't even taste at all, honestly, unless I pair it with the vanilla), and sugar all act as the elements that you might add to a cup of coffee. So it all comes together as one flavor, not many flavors. The idea here is for them to act as one flavored coffee taste, not as individual flavor elements.

The "Cold Brew" label is quite big on the package, I assume simply because cold brew is popular right now. I don't know that you would be able to taste cold brew differently in a chocolate. In addition to some cold brew coffee concentrate (don't ask me why they used concentrate), there is also freeze-dried coffee (which sounds quite weird to me). But however they did it, I at least (I who admittedly do not drink coffee often these days) found the coffee flavor real and true and not artificial or anything of that sort. So it worked for me.

What also worked, to my surprise, was the thickness of the chocolate. I guess these really aren't truffles, then, right? The thicker layer helps keep the filling safe in packing like this (as opposed to a box that truffles would be more likely to come in), and that strong coffee flavor actually needs that larger amount of sweet dark chocolate in order to balance it out.

I'm quite pleased. I'm glad that these aren't labeled as truffles; I'm glad they admit that they're just another long shelf-life chocolate product. But as long shelf-life chocolates go, these are great. I wouldn't mind seeing these around more often, or more products like this. They're more like candies than truffles, but not really in the same range as most candies. They're bites of coffee-flavored chocolate. No more, no less.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

"I Am the Past, the Present, and the Future"

Yes, I borrowed that quote in the title from Primeval because I've been going through a rewatch of that wonderful show and that quote just kind of wandered into mind as I started contemplating something: the Reader, specifically the Reader faced with a great body of reading material that will never come to an end.

We tend to go through phases in what we enjoy reading because there are so many possible things for us to read. To start with, there are centuries' worth in books and other material. You start off reading the main titles, only to realize that there are other, smaller (that is, less well-known in the present day) titles that you now want to read, as well. Like if you start off reading Jane Eyre and end up reading Agnes Grey or start with Pride and Prejudice and move on to Pamela and Anti-Pamela and The Victim of Prejudice. Things like that: the more books you read, the more books you feel like you need to read. For all that the writers are long gone, your quest is as new as if these are newly-released titles. This is connecting with the Past.

Connecting with the Present is easy to picture. You go into a bookstore and see a New Release that looks good and you buy it. Or you go in to get a new book by an author you've previously enjoyed reading. The Present is alive and tangible, constantly moving, and it directly references the time in which you, the Reader, live. Even if the setting isn't present day, certain traits of style or theme tend to give away a book's written era.

And the Future? Well, apart from people reading advanced reader copies of books that will be published in the future, I'm referring to this: those books that you expect people will still read or remember in the years to come. Some books get remembered simply for their popularity (some of the "classics" that we read aren't necessarily highly literary--they're just good reads, for people of their eras and for people today). Some for their connection to politics, history, or maybe social commentary (think Uncle Tom's Cabin or The Jungle). Some are simply stunning pieces of artwork. Sometimes we can't tell what books the future will hold onto, even if there are some that we think should be remembered. But sometimes we can be pretty sure. Books like this usually match at least two of the three points above and they are much talked about. Journalists as well as critics reference them, and college classes start adding them to the curriculum despite how "new" they are. Reading these books feels like glimpsing the future--glimpsing how people later on will view our present.

I am the Past, the Present, and the Future. A book really can take you anywhere.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Ballet Under the Stars

At the exact moment that summer officially ended this year, the change came: the lows are dipping down, even the highs last for a smaller percentage of the day, and the air already sounds and smells like fall. With these changes come the great return to the outdoors.

One of the organized outdoor events that becomes possible at this time of year is Ballet Arizona's Ballet Under the Stars. It's a free event that they hold at a few parks around the Phoenix area. Instead of watching one ballet, you see a couple of individual pieces, each with their own style. So it's a good event to go to as an introduction to watching ballet, to get a sense of what types of shows you may or may not be interested in attending in the future. It's also great for families and young viewers who might not be able to sit through a full performance in a theatre environment yet.

I decided to go to the event in Fountain Hills because, well, I welcomed an excuse to go to Fountain Hills. For those unfamiliar with the area, Fountain Hills is one of the "fancy" areas, but it's different from Paradise Valley or even Scottsdale because it's intended to let you be a little closer to nature/simplicity, with a little less of the city feel. One of the prices of this atmosphere is that, like with Cave Creek, you do have to drive a bit out of the city to get to Fountain Hills. The route you take and the amount of open space that you encounter in your drive varies depending on where you're coming from in the city, but either way you will find some pretty views that almost remind me of Sedona, minus the red color of course.

Fountain Park is a walking path with lots of grass around it that encircles a large lake with the infamous fountain in the middle. When on, the fountain shoots water high, high into the sky. And the sky? As evening settled in, soon after I arrived, I was pleased to see that the stars are much more visible in Fountain Hills than in the city--not quite as clear as they are up North, but clear enough. So this was truly ballet under the stars.

If you're coming with your whole family (that is, a group versus just a couple people), I do advise arriving early to find a spot. However, if you arrive last minute, you do have the advantage of picking a spot where chairs won't obstruct your view. It's only an hour and a half event, so I have to admit that I feel like only people who need a chair should bring one; I found that there were way too many chairs. Just stick with a blanket; isn't that more fun, anyway? It adds to the atmosphere, so different from sitting in a chair at Symphony Hall. Here I could clap while sitting on the ground with my elbow wrapped around my knee--enjoy the casual setting.

In fact, the very effect of watching professional ballet performances here under the stars in a beautiful park that I had never been to before made the whole experience dreamlike. Despite being about halfway through the crowd, I was closer to the stage than I've been before at Symphony Hall, and that added an extra nuance. Usually when you watch Ballet Arizona, you can be far away because they put together such beautiful sets/backgrounds and costumes and the groups of dancers create such elaborate and precise shapes with their movements. But watching without all of those backgrounds and extra little elements, I liked getting to be a little closer. It was almost less like watching a "production" and more like seeing the magic of the performance. Now, of course the setting meant that they weren't accompanied by live music from the Phoenix Symphony, but their sound system really was quite good and as close to live music as a sound system can be.

Things like this make a community shine. I like going Downtown to Symphony Hall, sure, but this was also a wonderful experience--and a much more accessible event since it's free. There are two more nights coming up, in Tempe on Thursday and Goodyear on Saturday.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Zak's Chocolate: Guatemala Lachua 70%

This will probably be my last review of Zak's Chocolate for a short while; usually I only do two, maybe three posts on one company at a time. So while there will be plenty more to taste later, for now I'm finishing off with the Guatemala Lachua 70% bar, which won Silver at the International Chocolate Awards this year. I was so pleased when I looked at those results this year and saw two Scottsdale companies (Zak's and Stone Grindz) represented there. Not that it's all about awards, but it's still nice to see your state having a significant presence in the chocolate world.

This bar is wrapped up in the same style as the other, just with a lighter, sort of orange color instead of the red. And of course the little award sticker is there in the corner, nice and shiny. The flavor notes for this bar explain that it "exhibits initial citrus, then dried cherry and raisin notes." Compared with the Nicaragua bar, this chocolate has a fruitier scent.

Mainly I would describe the first touch of flavor as silvery; that is, a sweet and mellow chocolate flavor with a smooth taste. Some fruitiness comes in next and just a hint of tang. Richness and warmth quickly follow in; that richness is what develops into the cherry/raisin notes, which become more distinguishable as the chocolate continues to melt. The finish leaves that flavor of chocolate warmth in your mouth. Occasionally, I might also get the barest touch of bitterness within that tangy, fruity flavor; to me, this is the citrus element.

Funnily enough, the chocolate reminds me more of the Madagascar brownie than the Guatemala Lachua one. That brownie was deep and almost bitter; this chocolate is just nice and warm. And those fruity notes are very much reminiscent of the cherry notes from the Madagascar brownie--at least in my memory.

This is excellent chocolate. It seems to hit a fine line where it isn't all about complicated flavor notes and yet it does have flavor notes. The situation here is what I want to call flavor-textured chocolate, or chocolate exhibiting flavor. The main flavor is chocolate, just angled a little this way or a little that way at different points. I find that, after all, I prefer the flavors here to those of the Nicaragua.

And that's all I have to say. Another good example of successfully composed small batch, bean to bar chocolate.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Phasma & the Dead Planet of Parnassos

I mentioned that I was more excited for the new book on Leia than for Delilah S. Dawson's Phasma.  Phasma, as a character, has never much interested me. She's just seemed to be an over-hyped side character without any particular traits to give her extra interest. She's just a flat villain, right? So how do you make a book out of her? And why, if I have no interest in her, would I want to hear her backstory? And how can her backstory suddenly be important to tell, if it wasn't necessary to the story before?

That's how I walked into this book, but you know what? Phasma ended up being a pretty good read. Phasma is the topic of the book but not exactly its central character; that distinction might only make sense after you've read the book. And most of the text is told in story-within-a-story format. So there is a sense of myth to the backstory that we hear, which does in fact go well with Phasma as an "over-hyped" character and as a figure raised up by the First Order. This format also helps lend to the theme of choice: characters have to choose what to do based on what they see, hear, and otherwise observe. Phasma made her choices, so did Siv, so did Vi, and so does Cardinal.

Naturally, I'm praising the fact that this book isn't about: "let's try and humanize Phasma and show that she isn't just a villain, she's more complicated, and here are what her motives are." As I've mentioned before, I get tired of that sort of thing because I think it lessens our sense of certain things being Wrong and it makes Right seem boring (which in fact isn't the case at all). So the way that this book is framed allows us to see Phasma as a person before she was a member of the First Order (and if you like her as a character, you can cheer for her and all that) without needing to, well, say anything about her other than the obvious: she is Phasma and Phasma has it all under control.

Now that I have that out of the way, I'd also like to point out how much I enjoyed Dawson's writing. There gets to be a certain style to book like this; they're all kind of written in the same voice because they're first Star Wars books and then Chuck Wendig or Timothy Zahn books--and what each author contributes is usually separate from the writing style (their way of writing characters, or action scenes, or political content, etc.). But the writing in this book felt different. The sentences flow in a less blocky pattern and in a more expressive way than the standard form.

The content, also, was a little different. Almost like how Ahsoka gave us a different setting, so did Phasma. So much of the book is spent on Parnassos, trekking across the desert. We see hunter/gatherer/warrior communities, an unforgiving climate, acid rain, desperate medical practices. It all reminded me at times of The 100. The feel, also, was sometimes more like an adventure story; not that the characters were out on an adventure, but they were so stranded from everything that their goal often felt displaced from their current surroundings. I say all of this as compliments: it was exciting territory to cover (well, except for the gladiator-esque bit in the middle--I guess I can never find content like that exciting).

And since this book is part of the Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi, are there hints about the upcoming movie? The obvious hint is that Phasma might become a bigger part of the story now, and that's why it was important to learn more about her right now. But they were also teasing us to ridiculously. A child named Frey? Really? That's way too close to Rey's name. And then there was Siv's unborn child, as well. It was impossible to not try and imagine one of these two girls being Rey--even though logic said that neither of them could be. But still, they were teasing us on purpose about Rey's identity. Her identity can't not matter if they keep teasing like this.

There are some references to Snoke and Kylo Ren, as well, and of course Armitage Hux plays a role in here, especially towards the end. But we don't find out anything new about any of them, just about Phasma's possible thoughts/feelings toward the lot of them--which could matter, though I don't know in what way. And then there is the whole frame story of Vi and Cardinal. Did they remind anyone else of Rey and Kylo? Just a tiny bit. That image of them stuck together in a torture chamber, part of him not acting as the usual torturer and her in some way taking over the situation--and of there being a sense that they will, well, be around each other in the future, in one way or another. Anyone? Everything in Star Wars being intentional (and reputation also being a usual plot device), I get the sense that this reflection was indeed on purpose.

Do you like how I turn everything, even a book about Phasma, back to Kylo and Rey? Well, you talk about what interests you most. And I guess Phasma interested me most for the planet on which it took place and for the extra thoughts about which it made me try and theorize.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Zak's Chocolate: Nicaragua 70%

How to choose? For my first look at the chocolate bars from Zak's Chocolate, I knew I wanted their Guatemala Lachua since it just won Silver at the International Chocolate Awards this year, but I also wanted to try one more along with that. What's nice is that, when you visit their shop, on the shelf with all the chocolate bars are small bowls with samples of each chocolate. So if you are just stopping in for one bar, you have the chance to choose the one you like best to buy (sometimes when I'm visiting a chocolate shop in another city/state, I have to try and choose which bars I think I'll like best because I can't really buy them all, so it's nice to not have to guess).

I didn't really need to try any samples here, though: I'm close enough to go back and, over time, buy each bar to review on its own. I did, however, try a piece of the Nicaragua; the flavor notes of "brown sugar, vanilla" drew me in. So this is the bar that I'll be focusing on today. It comes in at the standard cocoa content of 70%, and the cocoa is specifically labeled as Nicaraguan Matagalpa cacao. Inside the chocolate is just cocoa, cane sugar, and a some extra cocoa butter--it's all organic and the cocoa is ethically sourced. Zak's Chocolate, if I haven't mentioned before, also presses their own cocoa butter.

The style of the packaging here is handmade and handcrafted in the honest and best sense of the words. Pretty paper with sticker labels on the front and back is folded in a specific way and reveals underneath light blue foil (which the camera couldn't quite pick up). It's a cool contrast to the usual silver or gold foil wrappings.

Fifteen rectangles make up the chocolate bar; they each feature a diamond shape in the middle to add that small touch of visual interest. There is a deep cocoa aroma to the chocolate.

This is also the taste that comes first: simply a deep chocolate flavor. Then it gets what I want to call a toasted vanilla flavor. I use this phrase because the flavor isn't quite what I'd call sweet (like what I would normally think of for vanilla or brown sugar notes) because it does have a certain twang to it, but it still feels in the realm of sweet flavor. Not that I would call this sweet chocolate; it just has a sweet flavor in it (neither is this bitter or extremely dark chocolate). Sometimes after this I get a syrupy flavor that almost tastes alcoholic to me--but in the sense of vanilla extract, not liquor. This flavor goes somewhat along with that twang that I mentioned, a twang that isn't quite bitter or acidic but is simply an edge to the flavor. Depending on the time of day that I eat it, I find that I either get more of the sweeter flavor or more of the twangy flavor; I prefer the sweeter moments.

The chocolate becomes more tender towards the end. As it finishes, I find myself thinking of woods in autumn and pathways through brown and yellow trees. The meeting point between warm and cool.
A wool sweater with a soft gust of wind.

So this is chocolate that takes you on a journey. As I go along and try more from Zak's Chocolate, I'll try and compare and contrast the different bars to give a sense of what each one offers, as far as what types of flavor notes they contain. For now, though, it is sufficient to say that this is not just happy, small batch chocolate; it is quality artisan chocolate.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Disney Boys - Part 1: Pinocchio

Click here to read my Introduction to this series.

If this series will involve some comparison of the Disney girls and boys, then 1940's Pinocchio makes for the perfect companion to 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Both are moral tales with the classic Disney elements of good (light and bright) and evil (pretty dark). The difference is that, while Snow White is a good example of behavior and various virtues, Pinocchio is an example of what happens to us when we inevitably fail in our aims to be good.

Pinocchio is Man, Geppetto is his Creator, Jiminy Cricket is his Conscience/Moral Compass, Honest John and Gideon and Stromboli are Temptation, and Pleasure Island is Sin. It's all so straightforward that I feel like I don't have much to talk about.

Geppetto makes Pinocchio, but he is just wood. The Blue Fairy gives him life, but along with that comes the ability to make choices. Only Pinocchio can make himself "a real boy" because only Pinocchio can choose the correct path. He has the free will to be a good boy and listen to his father and to Jiminy or to follow Honest John down to Pleasure Island, where a false feeling of freedom soon gives way to bondage. Only when he escapes and is willing to follow his father (who has been calling out to him all this time) wherever need be (all the way into the mouth of Monstro) can Pinocchio become "real." In essence, this is when he becomes the "new creation," that is, the boy who is no longer just moving wood.

Talk about this being a story to set an example for children--it's an example for adults, as well. There are right choices and there are wrong choices, and sometimes we don't quite realize that we're on our way into wrong choices--but that's all the more reason to pay attention to where we're placing our focus in our daily lives. And just because we've walked down that wrong path, doesn't mean our Creator won't be still calling out to us, waiting for us to return. Also, when you ask in good conscience for something and you have shown that you're worthy to receive, well, miracles do happen and people do receive what they have so greatly wanted (Geppetto received his boy and Pinocchio became alive and real).

Pinocchio's quest is to become "brave, truthful, and unselfish." These are all positive traits, especially viewed with one another. You want to be brave, but not at the expense of being truthful and unselfish; also, being brave will at times help you to be truthful and unselfish. You don't just wish upon a star; you don't just make a prayer. You do that and you look inward to see what you are or aren't doing in your life. That's all pretty positive.

So that's all I have to say. Pinocchio starts us off very much like Snow White does, with a simple moral tale. Sure, characters later on will introduce more elements, but this character and this film offer enough on their own for a wonderful story with a wonderful message for the audience.

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Rapid Shakespeare Comedy

Fall is coming upon us, and you know what that means: Southwest Shakespeare and the rest are starting in on their new seasons. Friday night was the opening of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) directed by Debra K. Stevens. The evening was particularly special as a sign that the company was still able to stay on schedule after the huge setback that was the fire in their warehouse over the summer. You can read more about the fire here and make a donation either there on their website or on their GoFundMe page, if you feel so led to help out the arts.

Whilst watching The Complete Works, I felt like I had the perfect perspective to come in to this show. I don't necessarily like Shakespeare. At one time, I disliked Shakespeare. Then I eventually conceded that I liked a lot of things about Hamlet. Then I realized that I like the tragedies more than the comedies. Then I admitted that there is plenty of literary content to analyze in the plays. And then finally I found that it's the performance that also gives meaning to the text, and a performance can be great to watch even if the text isn't necessarily your favorite to read.

This play is marketed as being for everyone: those who do like Shakespeare, those who don't, and those who hold neither opinion. It's absolutely true, too.

It's a comedy and a parody, performed by three actors (in this case, Breona Conrad, Louis Farber, and Alexis Baigue). They condense the plays down into quickly presentable forms, and they give some "background information" on Shakespeare and his plays. This leads to some discussion here and there about all of the various topics (artistic, literary, historical, and social) that come along with the plays; while it's all comedic, there is true content in there, as well. That's the heart of good parody, after all: good parody gets to the heart of its subject, leaving that part intact while adding fluffy or silly extensions here and there like feathers stuck into a central sphere.

This play isn't just about the actors trying to quickly run through the dialogue of thirty-seven plays at lighting speed. It isn't that kind of show. Instead, they spend a good portion of time on Romeo and Juliet because it's one of the most widely read and viewed. They cover Titus Andronicus and Macbeth a little more quickly--I don't know about everyone else, but I'm familiar with both of those plays. They comedies all get lumped together into one wacky composition, and Hamlet delightfully gets the entire second act because it's also one of Shakespeare's biggest plays.

Parody or not, I found myself wishing that Shakespeare were performed like this more often. I'm not referring to the rap song or the tap dancing bit or the lightsabers. While those worked great for this play, what I want to see more of is this kind of delivery. These three actors all owned the stage, the scenes, and the dialogue. Part of their parody work involved real Shakespeare quotes, and they knew how to deliver the lines like words spoken by characters (as opposed to those performances where you're not even sure if the actors know what the words mean or if they were too busy trying to memorize difficult dialogue to even be able to interpret it). There was life in this performance. Sure, they purposefully overdid the enthusiasm a bit, but I don't think that's entirely un-Shakespeare of an approach. I think productions in general could use a little more of that style.

While I'm on the subject of the actors, let me also mention how quick, on point, and versatile these three actors were. Like with Wittenberg back in April, it was a small group where every person played an important role and played it well. Wittenberg used comedy to make the audience think, but The Complete Works uses comedy as the result after thinking. We've all formed opinions on Shakespeare; the play gives us a time to sit back and smile and laugh over it all. From half smiles all the way to uncontrollable laughter.

This was a tiny theatre, one of the spots in the Mesa Arts Center that I had never been in before (the smallest one they have there, I believe). Wittenberg had a small theatre at Taliesin West, as well--but that was different seating. This seating made you feel more like you were hanging out with the rest of the audience and with the actors. There was more of a physical connection among everyone, which of course worked well given that this play does involve a bit of audience involvement. Maybe all of this is part of the reason why the show built momentum as it moved along: the actors weren't just performing a script; they were feeding off of the audience's enthusiasm (this was such an enthusiastic audience, too, I might add). Sit in the front rows if you want to; don't if you don't. Involvement aside, I prefer the back rows because they're tiered and I'm short, so I get a better view from tiered seats. It's open seating, so if you want to be able to choose the place that suits you best, arrive early.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) is running through the end of the month; click here to see all the performance dates on Southwest Shakespeare's website. Go see it for a compilation of laughs; you'll just walk out happy, still glowing from that delightful treatment of Hamlet at the end.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Zak's Chocolate: Truffles

Last week, I covered the intriguing Single Origin Brownie Flight from Zak's Chocolate here in Scottsdale. Now it's time for the truffles. I've been enjoying the truffle scene quite a bit lately because it's still new for me to be able to buy fresh truffles in the state (usually it's something I do when I'm out of state).

Zak's truffles have a sleeker sort of look. The designs, neither quite modern nor rustic, are simple with well-executed details. The style implies that the focus is all about the chocolate. While there are some fine lines that are more difficult to mold, there are no distractingly bright colors, just a hint of gold brushed onto the turtle and the rectangular truffle.

Let's begin with the most exciting piece, the Pecan Caramel Turtle. The other people who were in the shop at the same time as I was were commenting on how wonderful the turtles were (while I was off to the side looking at a display). So I thought, what are these turtles and will I need to get one? Oh, definitely: even if I hadn't heard about them, I think I would have chosen one, anyway. In a glass case of sleek truffles, a single chocolate animal is irresistibly cute.

I did worry about slicing this one open; I thought I might just make a mess. But this isn't free-flowing caramel, so I didn't need to worry. And the open look shows off the little beauty inside that is a whole half piece of pecan. I don't think I've come across that in a chocolate before; it's wonderful how they used that shape to perfectly fit the turtle's body.

You instantly get crunch from this pecan, so that's what you taste first, even though it's located in the middle, surrounded by the caramel and then the chocolate. Sweetness comes from the caramel and even to some degree from the pecan. What's interesting to me is that this is dark chocolate yet also an example of how dark chocolate doesn't need to be limited. This turtle has a sweeter, fun angle that's generally more associated with milk chocolate than dark, so naturally I love that it is made with dark chocolate instead of milk.

The caramel, especially paired with the pecan, comes across with a maple syrup flavor. Even with that big piece of pecan, there is still plenty of caramel; it even fills the turtle's head. This caramel has a delightful, lightly chewy quality, so there is plenty of texture. The chocolate frames both texture and flavor and keeps this turtle more in the truffle zone than the confection zone. I can see why these turtles are so popular: I love absolutely everything about them. If you went in and bought just one thing, it could definitely be this.

Next we have the Blackberry Lychee Passionfruit, which is the one with what I believe is a lychee pictured on top. I had to get a truffle with a strong fruit presence just to see Zak's approach. This truffle starts off tangy, then gets a little sweeter. The blackberry seems to be more present in the beginning, and the passionfruit comes in more around the middle to the end. The lychee is hard for me to recognize because, while I've been coming across lychee often lately, it's always paired with other flavors and never on its own. Mainly I would say that the passionfruit is the dominant flavor of this truffle.The ganache is smooth but solid. As the chocolate melts, the chocolate base rounds off those tangy flavors with its deep richness. This feels like a less tangy chocolate than in the turtle; either it is an earthier chocolate or that's just the role that it plays in this particular composition.

The Simply Chocolate is the square truffle with the cocoa pods design. There is a super smooth ganache here; it tastes of chocolate and cream. Usually I don't taste the cream so much in a ganache, so I'm enjoying this effect. It gives almost more of a milk chocolate feel, even though everything here is dark chocolate. The outer shell is a good thickness, neither too thin nor too thick. This truffle reminds me of what it's like to enjoy a (good) hot chocolate, except that it's cool instead of warm. The flavor notes, though, are warm.

Last is the Mint truffle (the rectangular one), which I have to admit I chose as a kind of follow-up to my recent disappointment over Madecasse's Mint Crunch. I was just curious how this approach to mint would compare. As such, I'm probably just overcomplicating my comments here. At first, I did taste a strong mint leaf flavor, but then I felt like I was still tasting mint oil. Maybe it's just a better quality mint oil? The mint taste, after all, does taste strong and cool, not dull and flat. The chocolate is dark but doesn't feel too dark; I might perhaps have preferred it to be darker to give this truffle more of an edge. As it is, the effect is more like a chocolate dinner mint (reminding me once again, just a bit, of those Andes mints). That is, maybe I'm being unfair because this could be the intended effect: here I am praising the Pecan Caramel Turtle for not being a snobby dark chocolate and yet I'm also asking for this truffle to be less casual. The fact remains that the chocolate elements, the ganache and shell, are good. And the mint works. So this is still a nice piece.

As you can tell since I spent half of this post focusing on it, the Pecan Caramel Turtle was easily my favorite of these four. You will want to note that, while the other truffles come in at the usual price of $2.50 each, the turtles are $3 each; after all, they are a little bigger. Probably my next favorite was the Simply Chocolate. Favorites, aside, though, when it comes to truffles the greater impression tends to be more important than thoughts on a single flavor. My general impression is all personal excitement that there is a chocolate shop nearby where I can buy fresh, good quality truffles. The chocolate base for these truffles is excellent while also not detracting from the fact that truffles have the opportunity to be an ensemble of multiple flavors, not just chocolate. I will certainly be going back for more in the future.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Voyages in Star Trek

I'll repeat again: I grew up on Star Trek: The Next Generation, so that show will always have an extreme familiarity for me. It wasn't until later that I was able to look at it and see the individual things that I did or didn't like. In college, I finally got around to watching the original series, and while I always intended to get to the others at some point, it's taken me a while. While perhaps I should have started next with Deep Space Nine because it was the next one to start airing, I went with Voyager instead because I got the idea that I would like it more.

I could never watch Voyager before because when I watch a show, I have to sit down with it from the beginning--and with the intention of moving through to the end. Clips of Voyager never much held my interest, but watching the show from the start was completely different. In some ways, it's a little more to my taste than The Next Generation.

There are three main things I noticed. First, they took what they'd learned from TNG and built up from that. TNG had a weaker first couple of seasons and didn't start really developing its most memorable aspects (those deep looks at humanity) until the last couple of seasons. So Voyager was able to start off knowing just exactly what kind of sci-fi they were making. They were able to start off with characters that they knew they could develop and well, characterize. At first I thought I was just seeing their version of familiar faces: Janeway for Picard, Tuvok for Data, Paris for Riker, Kes for Troi, etc. But they quickly showed themselves to have their own unique characteristics--and character dynamics as a group, as well. I think also these characters were meant to be less archetypal. Did they start off too archetypal in TNG and then later develop things more? Characters aside, the Star Trek universe was also more developed by this point (that is, post-TNG): we already knew the background on the Federation and their part of the universe, so time didn't need to be spent developing that. Instead, the show was able to move forward with new spaces.

The second main thing I noticed was a greater coherency and smoothness in the overall arc of the series. Instead of the show finding out what it was and seeing, hmm, what should come next, I felt like the creators always knew where it was going. This wasn't just a ship going on various missions. This was a ship with one goal--and all of the little adventures that came along with heading toward that goal. As such, the series has a beginning, middle and end in a way that TNG never could (I'm not saying that that makes it better; I'm just stating the fact). And this time, instead of jumping from episode to episode, there were more plot lines that continued coming in and out of focus over the course of many episodes. Encounters with a certain species, for instances. TNG tended to have two mini plot lines in each episodes: maybe the ship was helping out a planet while Data was exploring some aspect of his humanity on the side, for instance. With Voyager, everything tended to be tied in. The ship has a smaller crew and they're together for a while, so they're a close group. If they're on a mission, that mission is directly tied into whatever character development is going on. If the show is focusing just on character development, that development affects the whole ship. In that way, the format felt less experimental.

The third thing was that this truly is a different group of characters. Janeway is less gruff and curt than Picard. She's still strict and sort of . . . classical in her style, but she's very much about supporting her crew on an emotional level, even more so after they get stranded. It's hard to imagine Picard stranded in another quadrant: the Voyager crew develops a more informal camaraderie that I don't think Picard would have favored. They make jokes on the bridge and tease one another about personal topics. They make group agreements to ignore the rules. And they're always talking about personal things because all they have is one another: they don't have families on board or waiting at a nearby starbase or planet. It makes for what I want to call a more modern approach, something that reminds me more of recent sci-fi shows.

Some of the traits that I disliked about TNG appeared a little less in Voyager and also felt more neutral here because they usually appeared along with humor. For instance. The Enterprise crew were always going off on their vacations to Risa, and at first the Voyager crew were copying them with that holodeck program. But at least they always made fun of the program when they used it--and at least it also stopped being featured in episodes after a while. Seska also turned into the type of character I'd expect from Star Trek (in a negative sense), so I was kind of glad when she stopped appearing.

Most of the other characters, though, I liked, in general. I thought that the relationship between Paris and B'Elanna was handled much better than that of Riker and Troi or Picard and Doctor Crusher. "Lineage" explored some territory both interesting and serious. Actually, there was quite a bit of serious material in here, in addition to this question of passing on to your child what has been hard for you to accept about yourself. Depression and suicidal thoughts (separately) (in a different way than TNG with Worf's attempted ritualistic suicide), the morality of saving your people or someone else's, and of course personal identity in all its multi-faceted forms. While I don't know what I think about Seven of Nine in theory, she did work well in the show. Tuvok never really served Data's role because Data was all about trying to be human and Tuvok was just trying to contain emotions; so it ended up being, instead, the Doctor and Seven who fulfill that role of trying to find humanity in themselves (the Doctor joyfully and Seven regretfully).

While it's hard to mind Seven by the end, I do kind of mind that the Borg don't feel like as much of a threat anymore. When you would see Borg in TNG, that meant, game over, you're dead. But Voyager keeps running into them so often that they don't feel too different from any other enemy anymore, and I kind of regret that loss. It was also a shame that, after so long anticipating Voyager's return to Earth, the finale episode just tried to copy TNG's finale with the whole mixing up timelines thing. It worked by the end, but I would have preferred getting to see the actual homecoming. I wanted to see Naomi Wildman meet her father for the first time, I wanted to find out what Starfleet had to say to Seven and what Icheb had to say to them, and I wanted to see the crew sort of step off the ship and look at one another and smile with all the bittersweetness that comes from finally attaining what you've wanted for so many years (and what will end the new life that you've built during the waiting). And I don't fully understand the Seven/Chakotay thing. It was like they just threw it in there last minute because they wanted to tie up Seven's character arc. But I thought that Chakotay and Janeway had an understanding--and there were no hints of Seven and Chakotay until suddenly we're hearing about them getting married. It felt like a too-hasty and therefore odd way to end the story.

That's just the end of the series, though. Overall (since, in all my ramblings, I still haven't had time to actually say much), Voyager was a good addition to the Star Trek universe and I'm glad I finally got around to watching it. It fit into the franchise while also establishing its own territory (it's helpful that the show literally covers new territory).

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Leia: Princess, Senator, Leader

While I got the impression that everyone was more excited for the release of Phasma this past Friday, I was more excited for Leia: Princess of Alderaan by Claudia Gray. Phasma I really don't have much interest in, but a book focusing on young Leia? It's about time (and this gives me hope that someday there might be books about young Padme). The YA Star Wars books always seem to get less attention, though Claudia Gray's Lost Stars was pretty great--and she already has experience writing adult Leia in Bloodline. So it makes perfect sense that this book also went to her.

Overall, Leia a great book and highly recommended. It focuses on the time before A New Hope, before the Rebellion had fully formed, and before Leia had aligned herself with her parents' focus on defeating the Empire. That's an intriguing time to witness, especially since we'd probably all imagined that Leia was born and raised a rebel--but the truth of it had to be a little more complicated because Bail and Breha were of course working in secret and wouldn't have pulled their daughter as a child into such dangerous doings.

We also get to see quite a bit of Alderaan. We know that it's sad for Alderaan to have been destroyed, but the film shows only the destruction and even only an extremely brief moment of grief on Leia's part. We get the sense that Alderaan was a beautiful and peaceful planet, especially from that glimpse at the end of Revenge of the Sith. But that's it. So it's worth reading this book just to live in Alderaan for a while. Some scenes take place on other planets, but the main base is Alderaan. You could even say the main theme is Alderaan--which often takes on irony because all the readers know what will be the fate of Alderaan, even though Leia and the other characters can't even imagine how bad it will be.

I did have some issues with this book, however. The beginning was a little boring. I couldn't align myself with Leia's perspective because the source of her main conflict was obvious (and explainable) to the reader (though not to Leia herself); that made it all feel petty and like we were wasting time. The book did get better after that, though sometimes it returned to a certain simplicity that bothered me somewhat. I don't mind a concise plot. But at times I felt like it was overly obvious where this one was going--and I never feel that way with books. Like Kier. If Leia's falling for someone in this book, we know that either he's playing her (and he's a spy or something) or he dies in the end because of course the book can't end with them together (then we would be left wondering why he isn't around and she never mentions him a couple of years later). So Kier often felt like an obligatory plot element, as if there is some rule that YA books must involve a love story and therefore he had to be in here. I get that they were probably also trying to show that Han wasn't the first person Leia ever liked--but still.

It was great to see more of Bail and Breha, though. I feel like they are characterized so much in just the brief moments that they appear in the films. Breha, especially, only has one quick moment and then she's gone again, but you still get a sense of who she is. Like Alderaan, I liked seeing more of them and seeing how Leia's involvement with the "special politics" of her parents began.

Also wonderful? The little hints about Leia's parentage. In some ways, this is a companion book to Bloodline. Bloodline is when the galaxy finds out who Leia is, and in this book Leia's adoptive parents almost pass out from the fear that comes with realizing how close they just came to the secret getting out (and not to the galaxy but to Palpatine, which is even worse--danger rather than just disdain). The echoes of Padme in Leia were a welcome connection between the two movie trilogies.

I had almost forgotten until I'd finished the book that it's part of the Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi bunch. So that would imply that it contains hints about plot points in that movie. All that I can really see is Leia's identity. I think everyone has already revealed that Leia will have a much larger role in the upcoming film, so it isn't really something new to learn that there will be focus on Leia's leadership skills, her past, and her connection to the Force (which may not manifest itself in the whirling, twirling, levitating form but still helps her to get things done). But I guess seeing how Leia was raised and how, as a teenager, she brought herself into her parents' work might help us to start picturing Kylo in similar circumstances. Ben Solo was older than sixteen when he found out that his parents and his uncle/mentor had been keeping secrets from him. Leia, having been young and in the dark, should probably have realized that it would be better to put the truth out in the open than to try and shelter her son. By trying to protect him, she lost him--and maybe he'll never even have that chance to return to her and ask forgiveness.

Apparently today is 100 days until Episode VIII. 100 days until we see this last Jedi mess start to unfold. 100 days until we find out just what Leia's next move is. We've all been focusing on Rey and Luke out on their island. But the reality is, we know what they're doing (training); this was the only thing the trailer really showed because it's the only thing that's obvious already. The question perhaps should be, what is Leia doing? What is she planning? She's a person of action. She wouldn't have just sent Rey off with a "good luck" and then sat back watching holos. I'm predicting that she initiates much of the action of this next film.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Zak's Chocolate: Single Origin Brownie Flight

At long last, I have finally made my way to Zak's Chocolate. Don't ask me why it's taken me so long when this is exactly the type of shop I should've been thrilled to pounce on; I may have kept putting it off so that I could continue looking forward to going there. Maybe I secretly didn't want the excitement to end.

Well, I've been to the shop, and the excitement hasn't ended. Zak's Chocolate is located in Scottsdale, just off of Shea. Another local chocolate company; wow, Scottsdale, you're spoiling me. (I guess it paid off when I bemoaned the lack of chocolate shops in Arizona a few years ago.) They do have more limited hours than some places, so just make sure to check the hours beforehand. This shop is aimed at a chocolate cafe angle; there is seating available, both tables and a bar by the register. So you can order a coffee or hot chocolate to go with your chocolates and enjoy them there if you like. Zak's uses ethically sourced cocoa and makes all of their products from the bean; you can even buy their cocoa powder (which I'll probably do once I finish what I currently have).

I have at least a total of three posts on Zak's coming up. I'm starting with the brownies. If you were going to eat something at the shop, this might be the most likely candidate (though I brought mine home). You can either get just one brownie or you can choose to get the whole Single Origin Brownie Flight. I think we all know what choice I made.

You can also choose to get the brownies either frozen or heated up. (Here I'll give a note that I don't mind frozen products: freezing things keeps them fresh for when they're wanted. I prefer using freezing for preservation versus adding preservatives.) Since I wasn't planning on eating them right away, I went with the frozen option. They suggested heating them up in the microwave to melt the pieces of chocolate that are inside the brownies, but given that I don't use microwaves I heated them just fine in the oven instead.

The brownies are about "brownie bite" size or a little bigger and shaped round instead of square. This lends more of an elegant touch and makes each one look more complete: there are no raw, cut edges implying that you're missing out on the rest of the brownie. And, of course, you get a different texture if each brownie is baked on its own versus as one part of a large sheet. The brownies come in a brown box sealed with a sticker; you also receive the little tasting paper to remind you which brownie is which.

Moving left to right, you begin with the Belize, which comes with the description "Deep Chocolate." With the brownies fresh out of the oven, the little pieces of chocolate inside were completely melted and the rest of the inside was soft and almost gooey from the heat. The outside was more crisp. I can never decide what I think of adding chocolate pieces to brownies (versus mixing melted chocolate in with the other ingredients); I don't use this method when I make brownies myself. But Zak's uses them in order to show the differences in the flavor of the brownies based on cocoa origin. So for them, this method works well. The Belize brownie is indeed the more straightforward-tasting of the three. It delivers a a sold, rich chocolate flavor; I didn't really find other flavor notes in there, except what I refer to as a reddish tone to the taste. It's a lovely brownie.

Next is the Madagascar, with "Cherry-like Tartness." The moment I tasted this one, I wanted to say that it was a little sweeter or maybe milkier; I think, though, it's just simply not quite as dark as the Belize. It is, however, nicer to taste after the Belize instead of before because it does have more flavor notes. Perhaps they put words into my mouth, but I do find a definite cherry flavor to this brownie. From a certain point of view, it is so much like an ice cream sundae (or like the non-physical concept of a sundae). Just a touch of a hint of creamy milkiness to represent the ice cream, the chocolate to represent fudge, and those cherry notes in place of a cherry topping. While I certainly do agree with the cherry part of the description, I don't find this brownie tart; the cherry flavor note is more of a fun flavor twist than a touch of tartness. It's all light and upbeat and cheery. Cheery cherry. There is, however, a different depth to the Madagascar than to the Belize; there's a little hint of flavor that reminds me of cocoa nibs. It's an extra push of flavor that really does build off of the experience of the first brownie.

The final brownie is the Guatemala Lachua, with "Dried Fruit Notes." This one instantly tastes deeper, like what I refer to as blue flavor notes (as compared to red). They say dried fruit, but these flavors remind me more of what I consider the floral notes. I admit, I usually less prefer this "blue" side of chocolate, but it is interesting to find in a brownie. I'm not used to finding these particular flavors in this context. So this brownie truly brings the concept of single origin brownies into full force; this is brownies like I've never had them before. I would put this brownie closer to nibs and cocoa powder than the other two because it is closer to having a bitter flavor. In fact, I'm going to guess that while most people will love the first two, this one might be a tad too dark for some palates. So just keep that in mind if you're only choosing one brownie and not the whole flight.

This would be a great set to order if you bring a friend or two to the shop and you're planning to eat there. Or you can get them boxed up and have the same wine-tasting-like experience at home, maybe after dinner. For me, half of each brownie was enough. I had to restrain myself on the first two because I really wanted to eat more of those, but by the time I got to the last one I was glad I'd kept to just half. Eating just half of the three brownies was all I could eat at one time, so you can probably share a set with another person. It isn't that the amount is too much (and there's certainly no sugar rush because there isn't enough sugar for that); it's just that the richness of the chocolate becomes . . . enough.

At first I did consider getting just one brownie, but now I'm absolutely glad I got the set (it's just under nine dollars for all three, by the way). They're designed as a set, and you get a whole experience out of tasting all three together. After that, you can see if you had a favorite that you want to get by itself later on. My favorite was probably the Madagascar.

So, yes, my excitement over visiting this shop has not diminished. Instead, I'm pleased to find not just good brownies but brownies that offered me something completely new and different to what I've had before. Next up: truffles.

Friday, September 1, 2017

September Book Sale & Signed Copies

(Looking for this week's chocolate review? I'm running a couple of days late this week, so it'll be up tomorrow.)

September is my time to celebrate, so all this month I'm offering paperback and hardcover copies of my novel, Black Tree, for 40% off at this link (you can still buy it from the other major booksellers, as well, but the sale is only from here).

And if you live in the state, I'd also like to point out where you can go to buy signed copies. About an hour and a half north of the Phoenix area and forty minutes south of Sedona, there is a wonderful antique store by the name of Sweet Pea Antiques. It's right on 260 in Camp Verde, just a couple minutes off of the 17--and right in the exact center of the state. So if you're traveling north or south, to state parks or museums or camping spots or anywhere else, the shop is likely not far out of the way. I have both hardcover and paperbacks there, and they're all signed; you can even pick up a free bookmark to go along with your book. I'm also selling handmade greeting cards: birthday cards, thank you cards, congratulations cards (and maybe some Halloween cards coming up).

Need some extra persuasion? Click here to read the first chapter and get a sample of my writing style.

Have a great Labor Day weekend.